My grandmother Hortense had a famously good memory: she once claimed that from her crib, she’d overheard conversations between her parents and other relatives, discussing whether or not to return to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. “Is life better for the Jews in America or Russia?” would certainly have been a long-standing topic of conversation, though the timing of my grandmother’s memory is questionable. Hortense was born in Chicago on May 15, 1919, four months after her maternal grandmother Chana Siegel Friedman died, and two years after the revolution began. Chana had emigrated to Chicago in 1891 from Skaudvilė, a small town in what is now Lithuania (formerly Russia), six years after her husband Lieb left her behind with seven children, and a year after my great-grandmother Lizzie and her sister Juju traveled across the Atlantic Ocean alone as young girls. Though the timeline of my grandmother’s claim seems to clash with the dates of the revolution, it’s possible that the family discussed the option of returning years after the revolution ended in 1923, or that my grandmother slept in her crib far past the age of four, or that Hortense really did have an exceptional memory.
Of course, the family debate would have taken place in Yiddish, and in my relatives’ tongue, Skaudvilė, a majority Jewish town, would have been pronounced Shkudvil. When I visited Skaudvilė for the first time last July, the only semblance of Yiddish I heard came from a tiny bearded animatron dressed in a peddler’s cap and long dark coat, speaking Lithuanian with a heavy Yiddish accent. This kitschy apparition of a Skaudvilian Jew (who may as well have been my ancestor) was part of an educational diorama at the local museum, designed to teach children about the town’s historic marketplace and its former Jewish presence. Moving robotically across a sculptural model of the town square, the automated figurine stopped to schmooze with Skaudvilė’s peddlers who appeared in a projected video. Though I couldn’t understand the animatron’s Lithuanian, I surmised (or imagined) that he was hassling the fisherman about the price of pickled herring, kibbitzing with the baker about the best babka in town, and gossiping with the shoemaker about who was schtupping whom behind the shed near the cemetery. I watched bewildered, and considered how the Lithuanian actor hired to record the animatron’s voice might have prepared for his role—practicing his best Yiddish accent as he waved his hands in the air, raising the intonation of his voice to get more into character.
It’s a blessing that my family never returned to Skaudvilė post-revolution, and yet eighty-one years after the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators nearly wiped out the town’s entire Jewish population, I have returned to initiate an art project. That project, titled Doikayt (Hereness), is part of my broader plan to stage ritualistic, improvisational performances of Yiddish folktales at Jewish sites across Eastern Europe. In a sense, I aim to become the automated figurine in the flesh, embodying a Jew becoming a caricature of a Jew, performing in my family’s ancestral lands, and engaging with local communities about the memory of Jewish life there. My chosen characters are mythical figures of Yiddish folklore and Jewish mysticism—tzadiks, dybbuks, and golems—that animated the dreams and waking life of daily Jewish existence in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. The Tzadik is a holy and righteous figure (disguised as a beggar in my character’s case), the Dybbuk is a wandering spirit that possesses a living body, and the Golem is a clay creature brought to life to protect those in danger. Poignant and powerful, these characters represent the dynamism of the Yiddish spiritual imagination.
In Yiddish, the word doikayt means “hereness.” I first learned about the term as a Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellow at Yiddishkayt, a Los Angeles–based organization, where I have been studying Yiddish language, history, literature, and art for the past two years. In the early twentieth century, doikayt was an organizing principle for Jews in Eastern Europe who believed in transcultural solidarity. In the 2007 book The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz reclaims doikayt as an organizing framework for diasporic Jews fighting against racism and fascism worldwide. Kaye/Kantrowitz writes, “Diasporism takes root in the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund’s principle of doikayt—hereness—the right to be, and to fight for justice, wherever we are. Doikayt means Jews enter coalitions wherever we are, across lines that might divide us, to work together for universal equality and justice.”1 I am drawn to the idea of doikayt not only because it aligns with my politics, but also because it encapsulates the ethos of my practice. I engage with Yiddish storytelling and performance traditions from a somatic framework, as a model for all people to reclaim culture and language in the wake of ethnic violence and displacement, to enact this reclamation in the body.
In the 2020 book Calling Memory into Place, art historian Dora Apel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, writes about the relationship between memory, place, and body. Examining a series of artworks, memorials, and sites of trauma, Apel proposes the idea that “memory is written upon place and place is written upon the body.”2 In other words, our memory is impacted by our experience of a place, even while that place holds memories independent of our bodies. As a performance artist, this concept resonates deeply. For the past five years, I have been performing as a golem in the United States, responding to local surroundings with an attuned sensory awareness of ecological and historical context. The project, titled My Golem, began in response to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and over the course of the next four years, progressed from a stylized satire of current affairs into an imaginative reinterpretation of the diasporic narrative tradition. Rooted in a sense of place, I have performed My Golem in the burnt forests of California, on the banks of the Hudson River, and at immigrant rights protests across Los Angeles. By transporting my practice to Eastern Europe and returning these Yiddish characters to their ancestral lands, I hope to deepen my understanding of the profound connections between memory, place, and the body. The photographs of the characters that appear beside Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s sonnets in this folio reflect my preparation for this act of transport: an attempt to inhabit these figures, to feel them in my body before I take them elsewhere.
The first of my Doikayt performances will occur in the summer of 2023, during the thirty-second Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. The artwork is titled Seven Beggars and will be staged as a weeklong performance—on the streets of Kazimierz,3 as well as one night at the Galicia Jewish Museum—introducing audiences to a contemporary reinterpretation of the famous Hasidic tale by Rebbe Nachman. In the spirit of the improvisational Jewish street performers of years past who journeyed from town to town playing in the streets, I will perform as a genderqueer tzadik accompanied by a cast of queer diasporic Jewish artists, including a poet, vocalist, and musician whose collective lineages stem from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Seven Beggars will invert, overturn, and reimagine the gender binaries of traditional Judaism, while also challenging nostalgic representations of Yiddish culture. In part, the project is inspired by my participation in radical queer Yiddish communities in North America, notably missing in Eastern Europe today. Before the German occupation of Poland in 1939, however, a vibrant Yiddish performance and film scene was flourishing in Poland, punctuated, in fact, by elements of queerness. Take, for example, the 1936 Polish-Yiddish film Yiddle with His Fiddle, which featured vaudeville performer Molly Picon disguising herself as a man in order to join a group of traveling musicians. Picon’s drag performance is just one example of the transgressive lineage of Yiddish performers that we will embody anew in Krakow, for a contemporary audience.
For me, embodying Yiddish folkloric characters is like entering a portal to the past. As I engage with the spirit of a lost world, I forge a connection between past and present, helping to heal deep and ever-present wounds. My own journey of carrying out this project, preparing to perform in countries from which my ancestors only nearly escaped death, is only strengthening my determination to revitalize Yiddish mythology for future generations. But memory is always changing, reshaped by our intentions, collective narratives, and environmental contexts. Recently, when I brought up the memory of my grandmother Hortense in her crib, my mom said I had it all wrong. Though Hortense had claimed to remember being in her crib, and some of our relatives had considered returning eastwards, the two stories never intersected; they were unrelated.
In my eagerness to remember, had I created a new memory? In truth, I had visualized the story quite viscerally in a psychedelic journey last winter. In my hallucinatory state, it was as if my grandmother was guiding me to her crib to witness the family debate, as if our bodies were merging. But as I stretched my (her) little body forward over the crib’s bars, I received a message to stop. I was not ready to hear the family discussion because I could not understand the language they spoke, the language in which they argued, laughed, and made plans. In that moment, my exclusion from the scene made total sense, it was a clear indication that I had some learning to do, some journeying back in time and place.
- Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, The Color of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 198–199.
- Dora Apel, Calling Memory into Place (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 10.
- Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter.
Julie Weitz is a visual artist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been exhibited at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco, CA), Torrance Art Museum (Torrance, CA), Lambert Center for the Arts (NYC, NY), Jewish Museum of Maryland (Baltimore, MD), and Jüdisches Museum (Augsburg, Germany). She has been featured in Artforum, Art in America, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, BOMB, and Hyperallergic. Weitz has received support from the Coaxial Arts Foundation, the Innovation Foundation, the California Center for Cultural Innovation, LAXART, Los Angeles Nomadic Division, the Banff Centre, Asylum Arts, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. She is currently a Wallis Annenberg Helix Fellow at Yiddishkayt.